Tag Archives: entrepreneur

Uber For…

google-search-uber

There’s an Uber for pet-sitters (Rover). There’s an Uber for dog walkers (Wag). There’s an Uber for private jets (JetMe). There are several Ubers for alcohol (Minibar, Saucey, Drizly, Thirstie). In fact, enter the keywords “Uber for…” into Google and the search engine will return “Uber for kids, Uber for icecream, Uber for news, Uber for seniors, Uber for trucks, Uber for haircuts, Uber for iPads (?), Uber for food, Uber for undertakers (??)…” and thousands of other results.

The list of Uber-like copycats, startups and ideas is seemingly endless — a sign, without doubt, that we have indeed reached peak-Uber. Perhaps VCs in the valley should move on to some more meaningful investments, before the Uber bubble bursts.

From Wired:

“Uber for X” has been the headline of more than four hundred news articles. Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs used the phrase to describe their companies in their pitch decks. On one site alone—AngelList, where startups can court angel investors and employees—526 companies included “Uber for” in their listings. As a judge for various emerging technology startup competitions, I saw “Uber for” so many times that at some point, I developed perceptual blindness.

Nearly all the organizations I advised at that time wanted to know about the “Uber for” of their respective industries. A university wanted to develop an “Uber for tutoring”; a government agency was hoping to solve an impending transit issue with an “Uber for parking.” I knew that “Uber for” had reached critical mass when one large media organization, in need of a sustainable profit center, pitched me their “Uber for news strategy.”

“We’re going to be the Uber for news,” the news exec told me. Confused, I asked what, exactly, he meant by that.

“Three years from now, we’ll have an on-demand news platform for Millennials. They tap a button on their phones and they get the news delivered right to them, wherever they are,” the editor said enthusiastically. “This is the future of news!”

“Is it an app?” I asked, trying to understand.

“Maybe. The point is that you get the news right away, when you want it, wherever you are,” the exec said.

“So you mean an app,” I pressed. “Yes!” he said. “But more like Uber.”

The mass “Uber for X” excitement is a good example of what happens when we don’t stop to investigate a trend, asking difficult questions and challenging our cherished beliefs. We need to first understand what, exactly, Uber is and what led to entrepreneurs coining that catchphrase.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Sharing the Wealth: Chobani-Style

Chobani-black-cherry-yogurtOK, so I am thoroughly addicted to yogurt (or yoghurt, for my non-US readers). My favorite is the greek yogurt Fage, followed by an Aussie concoction called Noosa. Chobani doesn’t even make my top 5.

However, Chobani did something today, April 26, 2016, that made me want to cheer. The company founder, and majority stockholder, gave 10 percent of the business to his 2,000 employees. On average, each will get around $150,000; some, based on length of employment, will gain millions.

Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, founded Chobani in 2005. The company is privately held, but is estimated to be now valued at $3-5 billion. Chobani’s employees will reap their rewards when the company goes public in an IPO. In Hamdi Ulukaya’s words:

I’ve built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built without all these people.

Mr. Ulukaya is a role model for other business leaders, who would do well to follow his great example. Chobani offers us a vision that shows employer and employee working to win together.

I may have to revisit Chobani and my yogurt preferences!

From the NYT:

The 2,000 full-time employees of Chobani were handed quite the surprise on Tuesday: an ownership stake in the yogurt company that could make some of them millionaires.

Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant who founded Chobani in 2005, told workers at the company’s plant here in upstate New York that he would be giving them shares worth up to 10 percent of the company when it goes public or is sold. The goal, he said, is to pass along the wealth they have helped build in the decade since the company started. Chobani is now widely considered to be worth several billion dollars.

“I’ve built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built without all these people,” Mr. Ulukaya said in an interview in his Manhattan office that was granted on the condition that no details of the program would be disclosed before the announcement. “Now they’ll be working to build the company even more and building their future at the same time.”

Employees got the news on Tuesday morning. Each worker received a white packet; inside was information about how many “Chobani Shares” they were given. The number of shares given to each person is based on tenure, so the longer an employee has been at the company, the bigger the stake.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Chobani yogurt. Courtesy of Chobani.

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Silicon Death Valley

boo-com

Have you ever wondered what happens to the 99 percent of Silicon Valley startups that don’t make billionaires (or even millionaires) of their founders? It’s not all milk and honey in the land of sunshine. After all, for every Google or Facebook there are hundreds of humiliating failures — think: Webvan, Boo.com, Pets.com. Beautyjungle.com, Boxman, Flooz, eToys.

The valley’s venture capitalists tend to bury their business failures rather quietly, careful not to taint their reputations as omnipotent, infallible futurists. From the ashes of these failures some employees move on to well-established corporate serfdom and others find fresh challenges at new startups. But there is a fascinating middle-ground, between success and failure — an entrepreneurial twilight zone populated by zombie businesses.

From the Guardian:

It is probably Silicon Valley’s most striking mantra: “Fail fast, fail often.” It is recited at technology conferences, pinned to company walls, bandied in conversation.

Failure is not only invoked but celebrated. Entrepreneurs give speeches detailing their misfires. Academics laud the virtue of making mistakes. FailCon, a conference about “embracing failure”, launched in San Francisco in 2009 and is now an annual event, with technology hubs in Barcelona, Tokyo, Porto Alegre and elsewhere hosting their own versions.

While the rest of the world recoils at failure, in other words, technology’s dynamic innovators enshrine it as a rite of passage en route to success.

But what about those tech entrepreneurs who lose – and keep on losing? What about those who start one company after another, refine pitches, tweak products, pivot strategies, reinvent themselves … and never succeed? What about the angst masked behind upbeat facades?

Silicon Valley is increasingly asking such questions, even as the tech boom rewards some startups with billion-dollar valuations, sprinkling stardust on founders who talk of changing the world.

“It’s frustrating if you’re trying and trying and all you read about is how much money Airbnb and Uber are making,” said Johnny Chin, 28, who endured three startup flops but is hopeful for his fourth attempt. “The way startups are portrayed, everything seems an overnight success, but that’s a disconnect from reality. There can be a psychic toll.”

It has never been easier or cheaper to launch a company in the hothouse of ambition, money and software that stretches from San Francisco to Cupertino, Mountain View, Menlo Park and San Jose.

In 2012 the number of seed investment deals in US tech reportedly more than tripled, to 1,700, from three years earlier. Investment bankers are quitting Wall Street for Silicon Valley, lured by hopes of a cooler and more creative way to get rich.

Most startups fail. However many entrepreneurs still overestimate the chances of success – and the cost of failure.

Some estimates put the failure rate at 90% – on a par with small businesses in other sectors. A similar proportion of alumni from Y Combinator, a legendary incubator which mentors bright prospects, are said to also struggle.

Companies typically die around 20 months after their last financing round and after having raised $1.3m, according to a study by the analytics firms CB Insights titled The RIP Report – startup death trends.

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Failure is difficult to quantify because it does not necessarily mean liquidation. Many startups limp on for years, ignored by the market but sustained by founders’ savings or investors.

“We call them the walking dead,” said one manager at a tech behemoth, who requested anonymity. “They don’t necessarily die. They putter along.”

Software engineers employed by such zombies face a choice. Stay in hope the company will take off, turning stock options into gold. Or quit and take one of the plentiful jobs at other startups or giants like Apple and Google.

Founders face a more agonising dilemma. Continue working 100-hour weeks and telling employees and investors their dream is alive, that the metrics are improving, and hope it’s true, or pull the plug.

The loss aversion principle – the human tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains – tilts many towards the former, said Bruno Bowden, a former engineering manager at Google who is now a venture investor and entrepreneur.

“People will do a lot of irrational things to avoid losing even if it’s to their detriment. You push and push and exhaust yourself.”

Silicon Valley wannabes tell origin fables of startup founders who maxed out credit cards before dazzling Wall Street, the same way Hollywood’s struggling actors find solace in the fact Brad Pitt dressed as a chicken for El Pollo Loco before his breakthrough.

“It’s painful to be one of the walking dead. You lie to yourself and mask what’s not working. You amplify little wins,” said Chin, who eventually abandoned startups which offered micro, specialised versions of Amazon and Yelp.

That startup founders were Silicon Valley’s “cool kids”, glamorous buccaneers compared to engineers and corporate drones, could make failure tricky to recognise, let alone accept, he said. “People are very encouraging. Everything is amazing, cool, awesome. But then they go home and don’t use your product.”

Chin is bullish about his new company, Bannerman, an Uber-type service for event security and bodyguards, and has no regrets about rolling the tech dice. “I love what I do. I couldn’t do anything else.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: Boo.com, 1999. Courtesy of the WayBackMachine, Internet Archive.

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Life and Death: Sharing Startups

The great cycle of re-invention spawned by the Internet and mobile technologies continues apace. This time it’s the entrepreneurial businesses laying the foundation for the sharing economy — whether that be beds, room, clothes, tuition, bicycles or cars. A few succeed to become great new businesses; most fail.

From the WSJ:

A few high-profile “sharing-economy” startups are gaining quick traction with users, including those that let consumers rent apartments and homes like Airbnb Inc., or get car rides, such as Uber Technologies Inc.

Both Airbnb and Uber are valued in the billions of dollars, a sign that investors believe the segment is hot—and a big reason why more entrepreneurs are embracing the business model.

At MassChallenge, a Boston-based program to help early-stage entrepreneurs, about 9% of participants in 2013 were starting companies to connect consumers or businesses with products and services that would otherwise go unused. That compares with about 5% in 2010, for instance.

“We’re bullish on the sharing economy, and we’ll definitely make more investments in it,” said Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, a startup accelerator in Mountain View, Calif., and one of Airbnb’s first investors.

Yet at least a few dozen sharing-economy startups have failed since 2012, including BlackJet, a Florida-based service that touted itself as the “Uber for jet travel,” and Tutorspree, a New York service dubbed the “Airbnb for tutors.” Most ran out of money, following struggles that ranged from difficulties building a critical mass of supply and demand, to higher-than-expected operating costs.

“We ended up being unable to consistently produce a level of demand on par with what we needed to scale rapidly,” said Aaron Harris, co-founder of Tutorspree, which launched in January 2011 and shuttered in August 2013.

“If you have to reacquire the customer every six months, they’ll forget you,” said Howard Morgan, co-founder of First Round Capital, which was an investor in BlackJet. “A private jet ride isn’t something you do every day. If you’re very wealthy, you have your own plane.” By comparison, he added that he recently used Uber’s ride-sharing service three times in one day.

Consider carpooling startup Ridejoy, for example. During its first year in 2011, its user base was growing by about 30% a month, with more than 25,000 riders and drivers signed up, and an estimated 10,000 rides completed, said Kalvin Wang, one of its three founders. But by the spring of 2013, Ridejoy, which had raised $1.3 million from early-stage investors like Freestyle Capital, was facing ferocious competition from free alternatives, such as carpooling forums on college websites.

Also, some riders could—and did—begin to sidestep the middleman. Many skipped paying its 10% transaction fee by handing their drivers cash instead of paying by credit card on Ridejoy’s website or mobile app. Others just didn’t get it, and even 25,000 users wasn’t sufficient to sustain the business. “You never really have enough inventory,” said Mr. Wang.

After it folded in the summer of 2013, Ridejoy returned about half of its funding to investors, according to Mr. Wang. Alexis Ohanian, an entrepreneur in Brooklyn, N.Y., who was an investor in Ridejoy, said it “could just be the timing or execution that was off.” He cited the success so far of Lyft Inc., the two-year-old San Francisco company that is valued at more than $700 million and offers a short-distance ride-sharing service. “It turned out the short rides are what the market really wanted,” Mr. Ohanian said.

One drawback is that because much of the revenue a sharing business generates goes directly back to the suppliers—of bedrooms, parking spots, vehicles or other “shared” assets—the underlying business may be continuously strapped for cash.

Read the entire article here.

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To Hype or To Over-Hype, That is the Question

The perennial optimists who form the backbone of many tech start-ups and venture capital firms, which populate California’s Silicon Valley, have only one question on their minds: should they hype the future, or over-hype it?

From the NYT:

These are fabulous times in Silicon Valley.

Mere youths, who in another era would just be graduating from college or perhaps wondering what to make of their lives, are turning down deals that would make them and their great-grandchildren wealthy beyond imagining. They are confident that even better deals await.

“Man, it feels more and more like 1999 every day,” tweeted Bill Gurley, one of the valley’s leading venture capitalists. “Risk is being discounted tremendously.”

That was in May, shortly after his firm, Benchmark, led a $13.5 million investment in Snapchat, the disappearing-photo site that has millions of adolescent users but no revenue.

Snapchat, all of two years old, just turned down a multibillion-dollar deal from Facebook and, perhaps, an even bigger deal from Google. On paper, that would mean a fortyfold return on Benchmark’s investment in less than a year.

Benchmark is the venture capital darling of the moment, a backer not only of Snapchat but the photo-sharing app Instagram (sold for $1 billion to Facebook), the ride-sharing service Uber (valued at $3.5 billion) and Twitter ($22 billion), among many others. Ten of its companies have gone public in the last two years, with another half-dozen on the way. Benchmark seems to have a golden touch.

That is generating a huge amount of attention and an undercurrent of concern. In Silicon Valley, it may not be 1999 yet, but that fateful year — a moment when no one thought there was any risk to the wildest idea — can be seen on the horizon, drifting closer.

No one here would really mind another 1999, of course. As a legendary Silicon Valley bumper sticker has it, “Please God, just one more bubble.” But booms are inevitably followed by busts.

“All business activity is driven by either fear or greed, and in Silicon Valley we’re in a cycle where greed may be on the rise,” said Josh Green, a venture capitalist who is chairman of the National Venture Capital Association.

For Benchmark, that means walking a narrow line between hyping the future — second nature to everyone in Silicon Valley — and overhyping it.

Opinions differ here about exactly what stage of exuberance the valley is in. “Everyone feels like the valley has been in a boom cycle for quite some time,” said Jeremy Stoppelman, the chief executive of Yelp. “That makes people nervous.”

John Backus, a founding partner with New Atlantic Ventures, says he believes it is more like 1996: Things are just ramping up.

The numbers back him up. In 2000, just as the dot-com party was ending, a record number of venture capitalists invested a record amount of money in a record number of deals. Entrepreneurs received over $100 billion, a tenfold rise in dollars deployed in just four years.

Much of the money disappeared. So, eventually, did many of the entrepreneurs and most of the venture capitalists.

Recovery was fitful. Even with the stock market soaring since the recession, venture money invested fell in 2012 from 2011, and then fell again in the first half of this year. Predictions of the death of venture capital have been plentiful.

For one thing, it takes a lot less money to start a company now than it did in 1999. When apps like Instagram and Snapchat catch on, they do so in a matter of months. V.C.’s are no longer quite as essential, and they know it. Just last week, Tim Draper, a third-generation venture capitalist with Draper Fisher Jurvetson, said he was skipping the next fund to devote his time to his academy for young entrepreneurs.

But there are signs of life. Funding in the third quarter suddenly popped, up 17 percent from 2012. “I think this is the best time we’ve seen since 1999 to be a venture capitalist,” Mr. Backus said. He expects the returns on venture capital, which have been miserable since the bust, to greatly improve this year.

“Everyone talks about the mega win — who was in Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest,” he said. “But the bread and butter of venture firms is not those multibillion exits but the $200 million deals, and there are a lot of those.” As an example he pointed to GlobalLogic, which operates design and engineering centers. It was acquired in October in a deal that returned $75 million on New Atlantic’s $5 million investment.

Better returns would influence pension firms and other big investors to give more money to the V.C.’s, which would in term increase the number of deals.

Read the entire article here.

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Masters of the Universe: Silicon Valley Edition

As we all (should) know the “real” masters of the universe (MOTU) center around He-Man and his supporting cast of characters from the mind of the Mattel media company. In the 80s, we also find masters of the universe on Wall Street — bright young MBAs leading the charge towards the untold wealth (and eventual destruction) mined by investment banks. Ironically, many of the east coast MOTU have since disappeared from public view following the financial meltdown that many of them helped engineer. Now, we seem to be at risk from another group of arrogant MOTU: this time, a select group of high-tech entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley.

From the WSJ:

At a startup conference in the San Francisco Bay area last month, a brash and brilliant young entrepreneur named Balaji Srinivasan took the stage to lay out a case for Silicon Valley’s independence.

According to Mr. Srinivasan, who co-founded a successful genetics startup and is now a popular lecturer at Stanford University, the tech industry is under siege from Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood, which he says he believes are harboring resentment toward Silicon Valley’s efforts to usurp their cultural and economic power.

Balaji Srinivasan, an entrepreneur who proposes an ‘opt-in society,’ run by technology. His idea seems a more expansive version of a call by Google CEO Larry Page for ‘a piece of the world’ to try out controversial new technologies.

On its surface, Mr. Srinivasan’s talk,?called “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,”?sounded like a battle cry of the libertarian, anti-regulatory sensibility long espoused by some of the tech industry’s leading thinkers. After arguing that the rest of the country wants to put a stop to the Valley’s rise, Mr. Srinivasan floated a plan for techies to build an “opt-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology.”

His idea seemed a more expansive version of Google Chief Executive Larry Page‘s call for setting aside “a piece of the world” to try out controversial new technologies, and investor Peter Thiel’s “Seastead” movement, which aims to launch tech-utopian island nations.

But there was something more significant about Mr. Srinivasan’s talk than simply a rehash of Silicon Valley’s grievances. It was one of several recent episodes in which tech stars have sought to declare the Valley the nation’s leading center of power and to dismiss non-techies as unimportant to the nation’s future.

For instance, on “This Week in Start-Ups,” a popular tech podcast, the venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya recently argued that “it’s becoming excruciatingly, obviously clear to everyone else that where value is created is no longer in New York; it’s no longer in Washington; it’s no longer in L.A.; it’s in San Francisco and the Bay Area.”

This is Silicon Valley’s superiority complex, and it sure is an ugly thing to behold. As the tech industry has shaken off the memories of the last dot-com bust, its luminaries have become increasingly confident about their capacity to shape the future. And now they seem to have lost all humility about their place in the world.

Sure, they’re correct that whether you measure success financially or culturally, Silicon Valley now seems to be doing better than just about anywhere else. But there is a suggestion bubbling beneath the surface of every San Francisco networking salon that the industry is unstoppable, and that its very success renders it immune to legitimate criticism.

This is a dangerous idea. For Silicon Valley’s own sake, the triumphalist tone needs to be kept in check. Everyone knows that Silicon Valley aims to take over the world. But if they want to succeed, the Valley’s inhabitants would be wise to at least pretend to be more humble in their approach.

I tried to suggest this to Mr. Srinivasan when I met him at a Palo Alto, Calif., cafe a week after his incendiary talk. We spoke for two hours, and I found him to be disarming and charming.

He has a quick, capacious mind, the sort that flits effortlessly from discussions of genetics to economics to politics to history. (He is the kind of person who will refer to the Treaty of Westphalia in conversation.)

Contrary to press reports, Mr. Srinivasan says he wasn’t advocating Silicon Valley’s “secession.” And, in fact, he hadn’t used that word. Instead he was advocating a “peaceful exit,” something similar to what his father did when he emigrated from India to the U.S. in the past century. But when I asked him what harms techies faced that might prompt such a drastic response, he couldn’t offer much evidence.

He pointed to a few headlines in the national press warning that robots might be taking over people’s jobs. These, he said, were evidence of the rising resentment that technology will foster as it alters conditions across the country and why Silicon Valley needs to keep an escape hatch open.

But I found Mr. Srinivasan’s thesis to be naive. According to the industry’s own hype, technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, data mining and ubiquitous networking are poised to usher in profound changes in how we all work and live. I believe, as Mr. Srinivasan argues, that many of these changes will eventually improve human welfare.

But in the short run, these technologies could cause enormous economic and social hardships for lots of people. And it is bizarre to expect, as Mr. Srinivasan and other techies seem to, that those who are affected wouldn’t criticize or move to stop the industry pushing them.

Tech leaders have a choice in how to deal with the dislocations their innovations cause. They can empathize and even work with stalwarts of the old economy to reduce the shock of new invention in sectors such as Hollywood, the news and publishing industries, the government, and finance—areas that Mr. Srinivasan collectively labels “the paper belt.”

They can continue to disrupt many of these institutions in the marketplace without making preening claims about the superiority of tech culture. (Apple’s executives rarely shill for the Valley, but still sometimes manage to change the world).

Or, tech leaders can adopt an oppositional tone: If you don’t recognize our superiority and the rightness of our ways, we’ll take our ball and go home.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Silicon Valley.

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Gnarly Names

By most accounts the internet is home to around 650 million websites, of which around 200 million are active. About 8,000 new websites go live every hour of every day.

These are big numbers and the continued phenomenal growth means that it’s increasingly difficult to find a unique and unused domain name (think website). So, web entrepreneurs are getting creative with website and company names, with varying degrees of success.

From Wall Street Journal:

The New York cousins who started a digital sing-along storybook business have settled on the name Mibblio.

The Australian founder of a startup connecting big companies to big-data scientists has dubbed his service Kaggle.

The former toy executive behind a two-year-old mobile screen-sharing platform is going with the name Shodogg.

And the Missourian who founded a website giving customers access to local merchants and service providers? He thinks it should be called Zaarly.

Quirky names for startups first surfaced about 20 years ago in Silicon Valley, with the birth of search engines such as Yahoo, which stands for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle,” and Google, a misspelling of googol,? the almost unfathomably high number represented by a 1 followed by 100 zeroes.

By the early 2000s, the trend had spread to startups outside the Valley, including the Vancouver-based photo-sharing site Flickr and New York-based blogging platform Tumblr, to name just two.

The current crop of startups boasts even wackier spellings. The reason, they say, is that practically every new business—be it a popsicle maker or a furniture retailer—needs its own website. With about 252 million domain names currently registered across the Internet, the short, recognizable dot-com Web addresses, or URLs, have long been taken.

The only practical solution, some entrepreneurs say, is to invent words, like Mibblio, Kaggle, Shodogg and Zaarly, to avoid paying as much as $2 million for a concise, no-nonsense dot-com URL.

The rights to Investing.com, for example, sold for about $2.5 million last year.

Choosing a name that’s a made-up word also helps entrepreneurs steer clear of trademark entanglements.

The challenge is to come up with something that conveys meaning, is memorable,?and isn’t just alphabet soup. Most founders don’t have the budget to hire naming advisers.

Founders tend to favor short names of five to seven letters, because they worry that potential customers might forget longer ones, according to Steve Manning, founder of Igor, a name-consulting company.

Linguistically speaking, there are only a few methods of forming new words. They include misspelling, compounding, blending and scrambling.

At Mibblio, the naming process was “the length of a human gestation period,” says the company’s 28-year-old co-founder David Leiberman, “but only more painful,” adds fellow co-founder Sammy Rubin, 35.

The two men made several trips back to the drawing board; early contenders included Babethoven, Yipsqueak and Canarytales, but none was a perfect fit. One they both loved, Squeakbox, was taken.

Read the entire article here.

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Hyperloop: Not Your Father’s High-Speed Rail

Europe and Japan have been leading the way with their 200-300 mph bullet trains for several decades. While the United States still tries to play catch up, one serial entrepreneur has other ideas. For Elon Musk, the bullet train is so, well, yesterday. He has in mind a ground based system that would hurtle people around at speeds of 4,000 mph. Welcome to Hyperloop.

From Slate:

High-speed rail is so 20th century. Well, perhaps not in the United States, where we still haven’t gotten around to building any true bullet trains. After 30 years of dithering, California is finally working on one that would get people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a little under 2 1/2 hours, but it could cost on the order of $100 billion and won’t be ready until at least 2028.

Enter Tesla and SpaceX visionary Elon Musk with one of the craziest-sounding ideas in transportation history. For a while now, Musk has been hinting at an idea he calls the Hyperloop—a ground-based transportation technology that would get people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under half an hour, for less than 1/10 the cost of building the high-speed rail line. Oh, and this 800-mph system would be self-powered, immune to weather, and would never crash.

What is the Hyperloop? So far Musk hasn’t gotten very specific, though he once called it “a cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table.” But we’ll soon find out more. On Monday, Musk tweeted that he will publish an “alpha design” for the Hyperloop by Aug. 12. Responding to questions on Twitter, he indicated that the plans would be open-source, and that he would consider a partnership with someone who shared his vision. Perhaps the best clue came when he responded to an engineer named John Gardi, who published a diagram of his best guess as to how the Hyperloop might work:

It sounds fanciful, and maybe it is. But Musk is not the only one working on ultra-fast land-based transportation systems. And if anyone can turn an idea like this into reality, it might just be the man who has spent the past decade revolutionizing electric cars and space transport. Don’t be surprised if the biggest obstacles to the Hyperloop turn out to be bureaucratic rather than technological. After all, we’ve known how to build bullet trains for half a century, and look how far that has gotten us. Still, a nation can dream—and as long as we’re dreaming, why not dream about something way cooler than what Japan and China are already working on?

Read the entire article here.

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Lesson: Fail Often, Fail Fast

One of our favorite thinkers, Nasim Nicholas Taleb, calls this tinkering — the iterative process by which ideas and actions can take root and become successful. Evolution is a wonderful example of this tinkering — repetitive failure and incremental progress. Many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley take this to heart.

Tech entrepreneur, Michele Serro, describes some key elements to successful tinkering below.

From the Wall Street Journal:

If there was ever a cliche about entrepreneurialism, it’s this: Joe or Jane McEntrepreneur were trying to book a flight/find flattering support garments/rent a car and were profoundly dissatisfied with the experience. Incensed, they set out to design a better way — and did, earning millions in the process.

It seems that, for entrepreneurs, it’s dissatisfaction rather than necessity that is the mother of invention. And while this cliche certainly has its foundation in truth, it’s woefully incomplete. The full truth is, the average startup iterates multiple times before they find the right product, often drawing on one or many approaches along the way before finding traction. Here are five of the most common I’ve come across within the startup community.

Algebra. There’s an old yarn you learn in film school about the power of the pithy pitch (say that five times fast). The story goes that when screenwriters were shopping the original Alien movie, they allegedly got the green light when they summed it up to studio execs by saying ”It’s Jaws. In space.”

In many ways, the same thing is happening in the startup world. “It’s Facebook FB -2.27%. But for pets,” or “It’s Artsy meets Dropbox meets Fab.” Our tendency to do this speaks to the fact that there are very few — if any — truly new ideas. Most entrepreneurs are applying old ideas to new industries, or combining two seemingly unrelated ideas (or existing businesses) together – whether they’re doing it consciously, or not.

Subtraction. Many great ideas begin with a seemingly straightforward question: “How could I make this easier?” Half the genius of some of the greatest entrepreneurs — Steve Jobs springs immediately to mind — is the ability to remove the superfluous, unnecessary or unwieldy from an existing system, product or experience. A good exercise when you are in search of an idea is simply to ask yourself “What is it about an existing product, service, or experience that could — and therefore should — be less of a hassle?”

Singularity. There’s an old saying that goes: “Figure out what you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Entrepreneurs are born out of the desire to spend one’s life pursuing a passion — assuming that they’re fortunate enough to have identified it early. The fact is that any kind of startup is really, really hard work. No matter how fast a vesting schedule or how convivial an office culture, the only thing that can truly sustain you through the bad days is having a deep, personal interest in your area of focus. The most successful entrepreneurs genuinely love what they do, and not simply because of the potential payoff. I once met a pair of British entrepreneurs living in France who loved nothing more than spending all day in a pub — meeting up with friends, watching a soccer game, and giving each other the requisite hard time about just about everything.

For their entrepreneurial class as part of their MBA coursework at Insead, they decided to draft the business plan for an English-style microbrewery in Paris — mainly because the research phase would involve a lot of sitting around in bars. But during the process of launching their fictitious company, they realized there really was an opportunity to make a living doing exactly what they loved, and went on to successfully launch seven such pubs, sprinkled all over the city.

When hiring at Doorsteps, I start by asking people what they would do with their lives if every career paid the same. If the gap between their truest desires and the job on offer is simply too wide, I encourage them to keep looking. Not because they can’t be successful with us, too, but because they’ll likely be even more successful elsewhere — when they are driven by passion as much as profit.

Optimization. Sometimes entrepreneurs benefit by letting someone else lay the groundwork for their ideas. Indeed, a great many startups are born by simply building a better mousetrap; that’s to say observing a compelling business already in existence but that’s struggling to find traction. These entrepreneurs have the ability to recognize that the idea itself is sound but the execution is flawed. In this case, they simply address the oversight of the previous version. Instagram quite famously beat Hipstamatic to the jaw dropping $1 billion dollar prize by understanding the role social needed to play in the app’s experience. By the time Hipstamatic realized their error, Instagram had almost four times the amount of users, largely muscling them out of a competitive niche market.

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Startup Ideas

For technologists the barriers to developing a new product have never been so low. Tools to develop, integrate and distribute software apps are to all intents negligible. Of course, most would recognize that development is often the easy part. The real difficulty lies in building an effective and sustainable marketing and communication strategy and getting the product adopted.

The recent headlines of 17 year old British app developer Nick D’Aloisio selling his Summly app to Yahoo! for the tidy sum of $30 million, has lots of young and seasoned developers scratching their heads. After all, if a school kid can do it, why not anybody? Why not me?

Paul Graham may have some of the answers. He sold his first company to Yahoo in 1998. He now runs YCombinator a successful startup incubator. We excerpt his recent, observant and insightful essay below.

From Paul Graham:

The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.

The very best startup ideas tend to have three things in common: they’re something the founders themselves want, that they themselves can build, and that few others realize are worth doing. Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook all began this way.

Problems

Why is it so important to work on a problem you have? Among other things, it ensures the problem really exists. It sounds obvious to say you should only work on problems that exist. And yet by far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has.

I made it myself. In 1995 I started a company to put art galleries online. But galleries didn’t want to be online. It’s not how the art business works. So why did I spend 6 months working on this stupid idea? Because I didn’t pay attention to users. I invented a model of the world that didn’t correspond to reality, and worked from that. I didn’t notice my model was wrong until I tried to convince users to pay for what we’d built. Even then I took embarrassingly long to catch on. I was attached to my model of the world, and I’d spent a lot of time on the software. They had to want it!

Why do so many founders build things no one wants? Because they begin by trying to think of startup ideas. That m.o. is doubly dangerous: it doesn’t merely yield few good ideas; it yields bad ideas that sound plausible enough to fool you into working on them.

At YC we call these “made-up” or “sitcom” startup ideas. Imagine one of the characters on a TV show was starting a startup. The writers would have to invent something for it to do. But coming up with good startup ideas is hard. It’s not something you can do for the asking. So (unless they got amazingly lucky) the writers would come up with an idea that sounded plausible, but was actually bad.

For example, a social network for pet owners. It doesn’t sound obviously mistaken. Millions of people have pets. Often they care a lot about their pets and spend a lot of money on them. Surely many of these people would like a site where they could talk to other pet owners. Not all of them perhaps, but if just 2 or 3 percent were regular visitors, you could have millions of users. You could serve them targeted offers, and maybe charge for premium features.

The danger of an idea like this is that when you run it by your friends with pets, they don’t say “I would never use this.” They say “Yeah, maybe I could see using something like that.” Even when the startup launches, it will sound plausible to a lot of people. They don’t want to use it themselves, at least not right now, but they could imagine other people wanting it. Sum that reaction across the entire population, and you have zero users.

Well

When a startup launches, there have to be at least some users who really need what they’re making—not just people who could see themselves using it one day, but who want it urgently. Usually this initial group of users is small, for the simple reason that if there were something that large numbers of people urgently needed and that could be built with the amount of effort a startup usually puts into a version one, it would probably already exist. Which means you have to compromise on one dimension: you can either build something a large number of people want a small amount, or something a small number of people want a large amount. Choose the latter. Not all ideas of that type are good startup ideas, but nearly all good startup ideas are of that type.

Imagine a graph whose x axis represents all the people who might want what you’re making and whose y axis represents how much they want it. If you invert the scale on the y axis, you can envision companies as holes. Google is an immense crater: hundreds of millions of people use it, and they need it a lot. A startup just starting out can’t expect to excavate that much volume. So you have two choices about the shape of hole you start with. You can either dig a hole that’s broad but shallow, or one that’s narrow and deep, like a well.

Made-up startup ideas are usually of the first type. Lots of people are mildly interested in a social network for pet owners.

Nearly all good startup ideas are of the second type. Microsoft was a well when they made Altair Basic. There were only a couple thousand Altair owners, but without this software they were programming in machine language. Thirty years later Facebook had the same shape. Their first site was exclusively for Harvard students, of which there are only a few thousand, but those few thousand users wanted it a lot.

When you have an idea for a startup, ask yourself: who wants this right now? Who wants this so much that they’ll use it even when it’s a crappy version one made by a two-person startup they’ve never heard of? If you can’t answer that, the idea is probably bad.

You don’t need the narrowness of the well per se. It’s depth you need; you get narrowness as a byproduct of optimizing for depth (and speed). But you almost always do get it. In practice the link between depth and narrowness is so strong that it’s a good sign when you know that an idea will appeal strongly to a specific group or type of user.

But while demand shaped like a well is almost a necessary condition for a good startup idea, it’s not a sufficient one. If Mark Zuckerberg had built something that could only ever have appealed to Harvard students, it would not have been a good startup idea. Facebook was a good idea because it started with a small market there was a fast path out of. Colleges are similar enough that if you build a facebook that works at Harvard, it will work at any college. So you spread rapidly through all the colleges. Once you have all the college students, you get everyone else simply by letting them in.

Similarly for Microsoft: Basic for the Altair; Basic for other machines; other languages besides Basic; operating systems; applications; IPO.

Self

How do you tell whether there’s a path out of an idea? How do you tell whether something is the germ of a giant company, or just a niche product? Often you can’t. The founders of Airbnb didn’t realize at first how big a market they were tapping. Initially they had a much narrower idea. They were going to let hosts rent out space on their floors during conventions. They didn’t foresee the expansion of this idea; it forced itself upon them gradually. All they knew at first is that they were onto something. That’s probably as much as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg knew at first.

Occasionally it’s obvious from the beginning when there’s a path out of the initial niche. And sometimes I can see a path that’s not immediately obvious; that’s one of our specialties at YC. But there are limits to how well this can be done, no matter how much experience you have. The most important thing to understand about paths out of the initial idea is the meta-fact that these are hard to see.

So if you can’t predict whether there’s a path out of an idea, how do you choose between ideas? The truth is disappointing but interesting: if you’re the right sort of person, you have the right sort of hunches. If you’re at the leading edge of a field that’s changing fast, when you have a hunch that something is worth doing, you’re more likely to be right.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig says:

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.

I’ve wondered about that passage since I read it in high school. I’m not sure how useful his advice is for painting specifically, but it fits this situation well. Empirically, the way to have good startup ideas is to become the sort of person who has them.

Being at the leading edge of a field doesn’t mean you have to be one of the people pushing it forward. You can also be at the leading edge as a user. It was not so much because he was a programmer that Facebook seemed a good idea to Mark Zuckerberg as because he used computers so much. If you’d asked most 40 year olds in 2004 whether they’d like to publish their lives semi-publicly on the Internet, they’d have been horrified at the idea. But Mark already lived online; to him it seemed natural.

Paul Buchheit says that people at the leading edge of a rapidly changing field “live in the future.” Combine that with Pirsig and you get:

Live in the future, then build what’s missing.

That describes the way many if not most of the biggest startups got started. Neither Apple nor Yahoo nor Google nor Facebook were even supposed to be companies at first. They grew out of things their founders built because there seemed a gap in the world.

If you look at the way successful founders have had their ideas, it’s generally the result of some external stimulus hitting a prepared mind. Bill Gates and Paul Allen hear about the Altair and think “I bet we could write a Basic interpreter for it.” Drew Houston realizes he’s forgotten his USB stick and thinks “I really need to make my files live online.” Lots of people heard about the Altair. Lots forgot USB sticks. The reason those stimuli caused those founders to start companies was that their experiences had prepared them to notice the opportunities they represented.

The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not “think up” but “notice.” At YC we call ideas that grow naturally out of the founders’ own experiences “organic” startup ideas. The most successful startups almost all begin this way.

That may not have been what you wanted to hear. You may have expected recipes for coming up with startup ideas, and instead I’m telling you that the key is to have a mind that’s prepared in the right way. But disappointing though it may be, this is the truth. And it is a recipe of a sort, just one that in the worst case takes a year rather than a weekend.

If you’re not at the leading edge of some rapidly changing field, you can get to one. For example, anyone reasonably smart can probably get to an edge of programming (e.g. building mobile apps) in a year. Since a successful startup will consume at least 3-5 years of your life, a year’s preparation would be a reasonable investment. Especially if you’re also looking for a cofounder.

You don’t have to learn programming to be at the leading edge of a domain that’s changing fast. Other domains change fast. But while learning to hack is not necessary, it is for the forseeable future sufficient. As Marc Andreessen put it, software is eating the world, and this trend has decades left to run.

Knowing how to hack also means that when you have ideas, you’ll be able to implement them. That’s not absolutely necessary (Jeff Bezos couldn’t) but it’s an advantage. It’s a big advantage, when you’re considering an idea like putting a college facebook online, if instead of merely thinking “That’s an interesting idea,” you can think instead “That’s an interesting idea. I’ll try building an initial version tonight.” It’s even better when you’re both a programmer and the target user, because then the cycle of generating new versions and testing them on users can happen inside one head.

Noticing

Once you’re living in the future in some respect, the way to notice startup ideas is to look for things that seem to be missing. If you’re really at the leading edge of a rapidly changing field, there will be things that are obviously missing. What won’t be obvious is that they’re startup ideas. So if you want to find startup ideas, don’t merely turn on the filter “What’s missing?” Also turn off every other filter, particularly “Could this be a big company?” There’s plenty of time to apply that test later. But if you’re thinking about that initially, it may not only filter out lots of good ideas, but also cause you to focus on bad ones.

Most things that are missing will take some time to see. You almost have to trick yourself into seeing the ideas around you.

But you know the ideas are out there. This is not one of those problems where there might not be an answer. It’s impossibly unlikely that this is the exact moment when technological progress stops. You can be sure people are going to build things in the next few years that will make you think “What did I do before x?”

And when these problems get solved, they will probably seem flamingly obvious in retrospect. What you need to do is turn off the filters that usually prevent you from seeing them. The most powerful is simply taking the current state of the world for granted. Even the most radically open-minded of us mostly do that. You couldn’t get from your bed to the front door if you stopped to question everything.

But if you’re looking for startup ideas you can sacrifice some of the efficiency of taking the status quo for granted and start to question things. Why is your inbox overflowing? Because you get a lot of email, or because it’s hard to get email out of your inbox? Why do you get so much email? What problems are people trying to solve by sending you email? Are there better ways to solve them? And why is it hard to get emails out of your inbox? Why do you keep emails around after you’ve read them? Is an inbox the optimal tool for that?

Pay particular attention to things that chafe you. The advantage of taking the status quo for granted is not just that it makes life (locally) more efficient, but also that it makes life more tolerable. If you knew about all the things we’ll get in the next 50 years but don’t have yet, you’d find present day life pretty constraining, just as someone from the present would if they were sent back 50 years in a time machine. When something annoys you, it could be because you’re living in the future.

When you find the right sort of problem, you should probably be able to describe it as obvious, at least to you. When we started Viaweb, all the online stores were built by hand, by web designers making individual HTML pages. It was obvious to us as programmers that these sites would have to be generated by software.

Which means, strangely enough, that coming up with startup ideas is a question of seeing the obvious. That suggests how weird this process is: you’re trying to see things that are obvious, and yet that you hadn’t seen.

Since what you need to do here is loosen up your own mind, it may be best not to make too much of a direct frontal attack on the problem—i.e. to sit down and try to think of ideas. The best plan may be just to keep a background process running, looking for things that seem to be missing. Work on hard problems, driven mainly by curiousity, but have a second self watching over your shoulder, taking note of gaps and anomalies.

Give yourself some time. You have a lot of control over the rate at which you turn yours into a prepared mind, but you have less control over the stimuli that spark ideas when they hit it. If Bill Gates and Paul Allen had constrained themselves to come up with a startup idea in one month, what if they’d chosen a month before the Altair appeared? They probably would have worked on a less promising idea. Drew Houston did work on a less promising idea before Dropbox: an SAT prep startup. But Dropbox was a much better idea, both in the absolute sense and also as a match for his skills.

A good way to trick yourself into noticing ideas is to work on projects that seem like they’d be cool. If you do that, you’ll naturally tend to build things that are missing. It wouldn’t seem as interesting to build something that already existed.

Just as trying to think up startup ideas tends to produce bad ones, working on things that could be dismissed as “toys” often produces good ones. When something is described as a toy, that means it has everything an idea needs except being important. It’s cool; users love it; it just doesn’t matter. But if you’re living in the future and you build something cool that users love, it may matter more than outsiders think. Microcomputers seemed like toys when Apple and Microsoft started working on them. I’m old enough to remember that era; the usual term for people with their own microcomputers was “hobbyists.” BackRub seemed like an inconsequential science project. The Facebook was just a way for undergrads to stalk one another.

At YC we’re excited when we meet startups working on things that we could imagine know-it-alls on forums dismissing as toys. To us that’s positive evidence an idea is good.

If you can afford to take a long view (and arguably you can’t afford not to), you can turn “Live in the future and build what’s missing” into something even better:

Live in the future and build what seems interesting.

School

That’s what I’d advise college students to do, rather than trying to learn about “entrepreneurship.” “Entrepreneurship” is something you learn best by doing it. The examples of the most successful founders make that clear. What you should be spending your time on in college is ratcheting yourself into the future. College is an incomparable opportunity to do that. What a waste to sacrifice an opportunity to solve the hard part of starting a startup—becoming the sort of person who can have organic startup ideas—by spending time learning about the easy part. Especially since you won’t even really learn about it, any more than you’d learn about sex in a class. All you’ll learn is the words for things.

The clash of domains is a particularly fruitful source of ideas. If you know a lot about programming and you start learning about some other field, you’ll probably see problems that software could solve. In fact, you’re doubly likely to find good problems in another domain: (a) the inhabitants of that domain are not as likely as software people to have already solved their problems with software, and (b) since you come into the new domain totally ignorant, you don’t even know what the status quo is to take it for granted.

So if you’re a CS major and you want to start a startup, instead of taking a class on entrepreneurship you’re better off taking a class on, say, genetics. Or better still, go work for a biotech company. CS majors normally get summer jobs at computer hardware or software companies. But if you want to find startup ideas, you might do better to get a summer job in some unrelated field.

Or don’t take any extra classes, and just build things. It’s no coincidence that Microsoft and Facebook both got started in January. At Harvard that is (or was) Reading Period, when students have no classes to attend because they’re supposed to be studying for finals.

But don’t feel like you have to build things that will become startups. That’s premature optimization. Just build things. Preferably with other students. It’s not just the classes that make a university such a good place to crank oneself into the future. You’re also surrounded by other people trying to do the same thing. If you work together with them on projects, you’ll end up producing not just organic ideas, but organic ideas with organic founding teams—and that, empirically, is the best combination.

Beware of research. If an undergrad writes something all his friends start using, it’s quite likely to represent a good startup idea. Whereas a PhD dissertation is extremely unlikely to. For some reason, the more a project has to count as research, the less likely it is to be something that could be turned into a startup. [10] I think the reason is that the subset of ideas that count as research is so narrow that it’s unlikely that a project that satisfied that constraint would also satisfy the orthogonal constraint of solving users’ problems. Whereas when students (or professors) build something as a side-project, they automatically gravitate toward solving users’ problems—perhaps even with an additional energy that comes from being freed from the constraints of research.

Competition

Because a good idea should seem obvious, when you have one you’ll tend to feel that you’re late. Don’t let that deter you. Worrying that you’re late is one of the signs of a good idea. Ten minutes of searching the web will usually settle the question. Even if you find someone else working on the same thing, you’re probably not too late. It’s exceptionally rare for startups to be killed by competitors—so rare that you can almost discount the possibility. So unless you discover a competitor with the sort of lock-in that would prevent users from choosing you, don’t discard the idea.

If you’re uncertain, ask users. The question of whether you’re too late is subsumed by the question of whether anyone urgently needs what you plan to make. If you have something that no competitor does and that some subset of users urgently need, you have a beachhead.

The question then is whether that beachhead is big enough. Or more importantly, who’s in it: if the beachhead consists of people doing something lots more people will be doing in the future, then it’s probably big enough no matter how small it is. For example, if you’re building something differentiated from competitors by the fact that it works on phones, but it only works on the newest phones, that’s probably a big enough beachhead.

Err on the side of doing things where you’ll face competitors. Inexperienced founders usually give competitors more credit than they deserve. Whether you succeed depends far more on you than on your competitors. So better a good idea with competitors than a bad one without.

You don’t need to worry about entering a “crowded market” so long as you have a thesis about what everyone else in it is overlooking. In fact that’s a very promising starting point. Google was that type of idea. Your thesis has to be more precise than “we’re going to make an x that doesn’t suck” though. You have to be able to phrase it in terms of something the incumbents are overlooking. Best of all is when you can say that they didn’t have the courage of their convictions, and that your plan is what they’d have done if they’d followed through on their own insights. Google was that type of idea too. The search engines that preceded them shied away from the most radical implications of what they were doing—particularly that the better a job they did, the faster users would leave.

A crowded market is actually a good sign, because it means both that there’s demand and that none of the existing solutions are good enough. A startup can’t hope to enter a market that’s obviously big and yet in which they have no competitors. So any startup that succeeds is either going to be entering a market with existing competitors, but armed with some secret weapon that will get them all the users (like Google), or entering a market that looks small but which will turn out to be big (like Microsoft).

Filters

There are two more filters you’ll need to turn off if you want to notice startup ideas: the unsexy filter and the schlep filter.

Most programmers wish they could start a startup by just writing some brilliant code, pushing it to a server, and having users pay them lots of money. They’d prefer not to deal with tedious problems or get involved in messy ways with the real world. Which is a reasonable preference, because such things slow you down. But this preference is so widespread that the space of convenient startup ideas has been stripped pretty clean. If you let your mind wander a few blocks down the street to the messy, tedious ideas, you’ll find valuable ones just sitting there waiting to be implemented.

The schlep filter is so dangerous that I wrote a separate essay about the condition it induces, which I called schlep blindness. I gave Stripe as an example of a startup that benefited from turning off this filter, and a pretty striking example it is. Thousands of programmers were in a position to see this idea; thousands of programmers knew how painful it was to process payments before Stripe. But when they looked for startup ideas they didn’t see this one, because unconsciously they shrank from having to deal with payments. And dealing with payments is a schlep for Stripe, but not an intolerable one. In fact they might have had net less pain; because the fear of dealing with payments kept most people away from this idea, Stripe has had comparatively smooth sailing in other areas that are sometimes painful, like user acquisition. They didn’t have to try very hard to make themselves heard by users, because users were desperately waiting for what they were building.

The unsexy filter is similar to the schlep filter, except it keeps you from working on problems you despise rather than ones you fear. We overcame this one to work on Viaweb. There were interesting things about the architecture of our software, but we weren’t interested in ecommerce per se. We could see the problem was one that needed to be solved though.

Turning off the schlep filter is more important than turning off the unsexy filter, because the schlep filter is more likely to be an illusion. And even to the degree it isn’t, it’s a worse form of self-indulgence. Starting a successful startup is going to be fairly laborious no matter what. Even if the product doesn’t entail a lot of schleps, you’ll still have plenty dealing with investors, hiring and firing people, and so on. So if there’s some idea you think would be cool but you’re kept away from by fear of the schleps involved, don’t worry: any sufficiently good idea will have as many.

The unsexy filter, while still a source of error, is not as entirely useless as the schlep filter. If you’re at the leading edge of a field that’s changing rapidly, your ideas about what’s sexy will be somewhat correlated with what’s valuable in practice. Particularly as you get older and more experienced. Plus if you find an idea sexy, you’ll work on it more enthusiastically.

Recipes

While the best way to discover startup ideas is to become the sort of person who has them and then build whatever interests you, sometimes you don’t have that luxury. Sometimes you need an idea now. For example, if you’re working on a startup and your initial idea turns out to be bad.

For the rest of this essay I’ll talk about tricks for coming up with startup ideas on demand. Although empirically you’re better off using the organic strategy, you could succeed this way. You just have to be more disciplined. When you use the organic method, you don’t even notice an idea unless it’s evidence that something is truly missing. But when you make a conscious effort to think of startup ideas, you have to replace this natural constraint with self-discipline. You’ll see a lot more ideas, most of them bad, so you need to be able to filter them.

One of the biggest dangers of not using the organic method is the example of the organic method. Organic ideas feel like inspirations. There are a lot of stories about successful startups that began when the founders had what seemed a crazy idea but “just knew” it was promising. When you feel that about an idea you’ve had while trying to come up with startup ideas, you’re probably mistaken.

When searching for ideas, look in areas where you have some expertise. If you’re a database expert, don’t build a chat app for teenagers (unless you’re also a teenager). Maybe it’s a good idea, but you can’t trust your judgment about that, so ignore it. There have to be other ideas that involve databases, and whose quality you can judge. Do you find it hard to come up with good ideas involving databases? That’s because your expertise raises your standards. Your ideas about chat apps are just as bad, but you’re giving yourself a Dunning-Kruger pass in that domain.

The place to start looking for ideas is things you need. There must be things you need.

One good trick is to ask yourself whether in your previous job you ever found yourself saying “Why doesn’t someone make x? If someone made x we’d buy it in a second.” If you can think of any x people said that about, you probably have an idea. You know there’s demand, and people don’t say that about things that are impossible to build.

More generally, try asking yourself whether there’s something unusual about you that makes your needs different from most other people’s. You’re probably not the only one. It’s especially good if you’re different in a way people will increasingly be.

If you’re changing ideas, one unusual thing about you is the idea you’d previously been working on. Did you discover any needs while working on it? Several well-known startups began this way. Hotmail began as something its founders wrote to talk about their previous startup idea while they were working at their day jobs. [15]

A particularly promising way to be unusual is to be young. Some of the most valuable new ideas take root first among people in their teens and early twenties. And while young founders are at a disadvantage in some respects, they’re the only ones who really understand their peers. It would have been very hard for someone who wasn’t a college student to start Facebook. So if you’re a young founder (under 23 say), are there things you and your friends would like to do that current technology won’t let you?

The next best thing to an unmet need of your own is an unmet need of someone else. Try talking to everyone you can about the gaps they find in the world. What’s missing? What would they like to do that they can’t? What’s tedious or annoying, particularly in their work? Let the conversation get general; don’t be trying too hard to find startup ideas. You’re just looking for something to spark a thought. Maybe you’ll notice a problem they didn’t consciously realize they had, because you know how to solve it.

When you find an unmet need that isn’t your own, it may be somewhat blurry at first. The person who needs something may not know exactly what they need. In that case I often recommend that founders act like consultants—that they do what they’d do if they’d been retained to solve the problems of this one user. People’s problems are similar enough that nearly all the code you write this way will be reusable, and whatever isn’t will be a small price to start out certain that you’ve reached the bottom of the well.

One way to ensure you do a good job solving other people’s problems is to make them your own. When Rajat Suri of E la Carte decided to write software for restaurants, he got a job as a waiter to learn how restaurants worked. That may seem like taking things to extremes, but startups are extreme. We love it when founders do such things.

In fact, one strategy I recommend to people who need a new idea is not merely to turn off their schlep and unsexy filters, but to seek out ideas that are unsexy or involve schleps. Don’t try to start Twitter. Those ideas are so rare that you can’t find them by looking for them. Make something unsexy that people will pay you for.

A good trick for bypassing the schlep and to some extent the unsexy filter is to ask what you wish someone else would build, so that you could use it. What would you pay for right now?

Since startups often garbage-collect broken companies and industries, it can be a good trick to look for those that are dying, or deserve to, and try to imagine what kind of company would profit from their demise. For example, journalism is in free fall at the moment. But there may still be money to be made from something like journalism. What sort of company might cause people in the future to say “this replaced journalism” on some axis?

But imagine asking that in the future, not now. When one company or industry replaces another, it usually comes in from the side. So don’t look for a replacement for x; look for something that people will later say turned out to be a replacement for x. And be imaginative about the axis along which the replacement occurs. Traditional journalism, for example, is a way for readers to get information and to kill time, a way for writers to make money and to get attention, and a vehicle for several different types of advertising. It could be replaced on any of these axes (it has already started to be on most).

When startups consume incumbents, they usually start by serving some small but important market that the big players ignore. It’s particularly good if there’s an admixture of disdain in the big players’ attitude, because that often misleads them. For example, after Steve Wozniak built the computer that became the Apple I, he felt obliged to give his then-employer Hewlett-Packard the option to produce it. Fortunately for him, they turned it down, and one of the reasons they did was that it used a TV for a monitor, which seemed intolerably déclassé to a high-end hardware company like HP was at the time.

Are there groups of scruffy but sophisticated users like the early microcomputer “hobbyists” that are currently being ignored by the big players? A startup with its sights set on bigger things can often capture a small market easily by expending an effort that wouldn’t be justified by that market alone.

Similarly, since the most successful startups generally ride some wave bigger than themselves, it could be a good trick to look for waves and ask how one could benefit from them. The prices of gene sequencing and 3D printing are both experiencing Moore’s Law-like declines. What new things will we be able to do in the new world we’ll have in a few years? What are we unconsciously ruling out as impossible that will soon be possible?

Organic

But talking about looking explicitly for waves makes it clear that such recipes are plan B for getting startup ideas. Looking for waves is essentially a way to simulate the organic method. If you’re at the leading edge of some rapidly changing field, you don’t have to look for waves; you are the wave.

Finding startup ideas is a subtle business, and that’s why most people who try fail so miserably. It doesn’t work well simply to try to think of startup ideas. If you do that, you get bad ones that sound dangerously plausible. The best approach is more indirect: if you have the right sort of background, good startup ideas will seem obvious to you. But even then, not immediately. It takes time to come across situations where you notice something missing. And often these gaps won’t seem to be ideas for companies, just things that would be interesting to build. Which is why it’s good to have the time and the inclination to build things just because they’re interesting.

Live in the future and build what seems interesting. Strange as it sounds, that’s the real recipe.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Nick D’Aloisio with his Summly app. Courtesy of Telegraph.

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